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Leonard Fournette is showing signs of refining his game

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Denver Broncos Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

The Jacksonville Jaguars are 2-3 headed into a showdown with the New Orleans Saints at TIAA Bank Field on Sunday, with a good chance to pull back to .500. There’s still a lot of excitement around the team, because they could easily be 4-1 had a few things gone their way and a big reason for that has been the on and off the field maturation of former fourth-overall pick Leonard Fournette.

Fournette has already surpassed his 2018 rushing total, which was a season marred by injuries and immaturity, but after isolating himself in Wyoming to train in the offseason, you can see the clear improvement both on and off the field. Fournette is emerging as a leader on the sidelines and on the offense, but he’s finally leaning into his strengths as a running back especially now with how the offense has changed with Gardner Minshew II at quarterback.

Many will remember my analysis of Fournette prior to the 2017 NFL Draft and how I wasn’t really a fan and felt if the Jaguars, in their setup at the time, would be better off taking Christian McCaffrey or just waiting to take a running back until later in the draft. Back in 2017, the Jaguars ran a ton of shotgun formation with three receivers, which was understandable since Blake Bortles was so much better in shotgun and the team’s three-wide look was going to be Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns.

In watching Fournette at LSU he struggled running the ball out of the shotgun, because while he does have good top end speed, he was more of a straight line build up runner. He needs daylight to run to and if he’s stopped and forced to dance around and change direction, he was more or less dead in the water. We saw a lot of that his rookie season, but he was still excellent in the redzone so it wasn’t talked about much. We saw even more of it in 2018 as he was just abysmal in most games, though to his defense he was eaten up a lot in the backfield and the Jaguars offensive structure did him no favors.

In 2019 however, it seems offensive coordinator John DeFilippo and Fournette both know what his strengths are and are now playing into them. Some of that has a lot to do with how the offense has evolved with Gardner Minshew II at quarterback, which means the team can run a lot more 12 personnel with Minshew lined up under center, which is a big boon for Fournette. When Fournette has good runs, which are becoming more common, he’s decisive and hits the clear line to run through and runs with violence.

When they’re bad, it’s because there’s not really a clear lane or he’s forced to move laterally and gets bogged down. It’s simply not his game. Those runs however, are becoming less common. I think the last two weeks have shown a lot of both sides of this, but more signs of Fournette and the offense finally hitting that groove of running the ball in ways that he can shine.

Good runs

Here you see the team lined up in what I will call 12 personnel (1TE, 2RB), even though the fullback is actually a tight end, he’s lined up in the backfield. You see Minshew under center, which gives Fournette the chance to begin his buildup to the line before getting the ball, the clear lane in the A-gap between the center and guard opens and he immediately hits the hole and runs physical for a 13-yard gain. You see Linder shed the defensive tackle with the fullback coming to seal and then the right guard picking up the linebacker. It’s a clear easy lane for Fournette to hit. Easy.

Here we see the Jaguars lined up in 21 personnel (2TE, 1RB) under center and it’s just a straight up run up the gut. Fournette gets his build up before getting the football, the right side combos the defensive tackle, Linder reaches the linebacker and it’s a quick three yards. Not anything special, but a quick easy decisive pickup.

Next we have the long 84-yard run by Fournette against the Denver Broncos. It’s a simple zone run from a 21 look (2TE, 1RB) from under center with the blocking all moving to the left. Fournette gets his build up heading to the left, immediately sees daylight and cuts up through the hole without hesitation and he’s off to the second level where he’s finally just running through arm tackles and punishing second level defenders. There is absolutely nothing fancy about this play, it’s just everyone reaching their man and Fournette seeing the daylight and taking it. Last year he might have just run up the back of the center and been tackled for a short gain or loss because he would hesitate and he’s doing that less and less this year.

Now we see a run from the game against the Carolina Panthers that isn’t a huge gain, but it illustrates the growth of Fournette and what we’re seeing more of in the good way. We’re once again under center in a 21 look and it’s just a simple run up the middle, but Fournette doesn’t hesitate on the hole and doesn’t get greedy trying to cut it back. He sees it, he hits it and it’s positive yards. Often last year we’d see him hesitate because of the defensive tackle shedding A.J. Cann’s block and he’d stutter step and try to cut it back, but that often ended up like a semi-truck jackknifing than an Initial-D turn. This time he powers through the arm tackle and picks up positive yards.

Bad runs

Now we’re going to take a few looks at the bad runs and often what people are talking about with Fournette trying to play outside of himself. Against the Panthers we have an outside toss from a 12 personnel look where it’s basically “student body left”. While I’m not sure Fournette would have gotten much sticking with the flow of the run, he gets a bit greedy and tries to cut it back against the grain to get just absolutely nothing. You can see as soon as he cuts to change direction he takes a ton of steps just to decelerate and turn that the defense is all over him.

On the very next play we get almost the same toss play, but this time to the right and from 11 (1TE, 1RB) personnel and once again Fournette tries to do too much. On this instance he was correct to cut it up when he did because the tight end was not holding the edge and it would have been a huge loss on the play, but instead of cutting up and just powering forward behind Will Richardson and Andrew Norwell he tries to cut back even further and you see his issues with stopping and starting, giving the defense plenty of time to swarm him down for no gain.

I mentioned after Sunday’s game that I thought Fournette played well, but it was a good showcase of what he’s currently doing well and what he’s still doing poorly. He’s never going to not have some of the bad runs like the two highlighted above, but the key is that those are coming fewer and fewer.

Fournette is a back that is always going to have limitations because of his running style, but thankfully it seems the Jaguars finally have not only a quarterback who can thrive in the types of formations that Fournette does, but also an offensive coordinator who recognizes this and plays to it.